Gardner's 'Multiple Intelligences' seductive nonsense?
In Gardner’s 2003 paper in the American Educational Research Association, Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years, he states,
“I have come to realize that once one releases an idea – “meme” – into the world, one cannot completely control its behaviour – anymore than one can control those products of our genes we call children.”
Absolutely. One of the problems with Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’ was its seductiveness. A teacher could simply say, everyone’s smart, we’re all just smart in different ways. There’s a truth in this, in terms of a narrowly academic curriculum, but when adopted as ‘science’ in schools, Multiple Intelligences can be a dumbing-down, destructive force. In general people confuse the critique of single IQ scores as a measure of intelligence, with Gardner’s theory, as if he were the final world on the matter. He is not.
First, teachers who quote and use the theory are unlikely to have fully understood its status and further development by Gardner himself. Few will have understood that it is not supported in the world of neuroscience, despite the perception by educators that it arose from there. Gardner’s first book, Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2003) laid out the first version of the theory, followed 16 years later by a reformulation in Intelligence Reframed (1999), then again in Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years (2003). Few have followed its development after 1983 or the critiques and Gardner’s subsequent distancing of the theory from brain science.
Lynn Waterhouse laid out the lack of scientific evidence for the theory in Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review in Educational Psychologist, a paper to which Gardner felt duty bound to respond. In fact, in response to the absence of neurological evidence for his separate 'intelligence' components, Gardner had to redefine his intelligences as “composites of fine-grained neurological subprocesses but not those subprocesses themselves”(Gardner and Moran, 2006). In fact, many areas of learning such as reason, emotion, action, music, language and so on are characterised by their overlapping, dispersed and complex patterns of activity in the brain, as shown in brain scans. Islands of functional specificity are extremely rare. In short, Gardner suffers from conceptual invention and simplicity. Brain science simply does not support the theory.
Gardener himself admits that the science has yet to come, but teachers assume it’s already there and that the theory arose from the science. Big mistake. Pickering and Howard-Jones found that teachers associate multiple intelligences with neuroscience, but as Howard-Jones states in his recent BECTA report, “In terms of the science, however, it seems an unhelpful simplification as no clearly defined set of capabilities arises from either the biological or psychological research”.
Training's the problem
The problem seems to be the culture of in-service training ( a fact confirmed in the Howard-Jones survey), as the most quoted source for such myths. It would seem that a rather lazy culture of oddball suppliers and ‘psychology for dummies’ INSET days has led to this sad state of affairs. There's an army of small teams of trainers peddling this snake-oil. They cull populist, fashionable theories, string them together in PowerPoint presentations, and the ever-popular 'workshops' and so the meme is virally spread, not only through the minds of teachers, but to our children who suffer from the misconceptions of their teachers. We all agree that teachers don't have a lot of spare time, so why waste it on this rubbish? Their time would surely be better spent on real brain science, where real increases in the productivity of learning are possible, not tomorrow but now.
Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. (New York, Basic Books).
Gardner, H. (1999) Intelligence Reframed. (New York, Basic Books).
Gardner, H. (2003) "Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years." American Educational Research Association.
Gardner, H., and Moran, S. (2006) The Science of Multiple Intelligences Theory: A Response to Lynn Waterhouse, Educational Psychologist, 41.4, 227-32.
Pickering, S.J., and Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Educators' Views on the Role of Neuroscience in Education: Findings from a Study of UK and International Perspectives, Mind, Brain and Education, 1.3, 109-13.
Waterhouse L. (2006) Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review, Educational Psychologist, 41.4, 207-25.